ROCKETS HAND HEARTBREAK TO SUNS
The Houston Rockets finally became heroes to their fans instead of heartbreakers.
Hakeem Olajuwon, virtually unstoppable inside, had 37 points and 17 rebounds Saturday, leading the Rockets to a 104-94 victory over Phoenix in the seventh game of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series. The Rockets open Game 1 of the conference finals Monday vs. Utah.The heartbreak - and pain - was for Charles Barkley, who may have ended his career by being tossed from the game after hobbling up and down the court with a groin injury. He was ejected with 7.4 seconds left, then said he plans to get medical advice about his chronic back pain before continuing his career.
"The bottom line is I'm not going to play with the pain I've been in," Barkley said. "I'm going to get with the doctors and if they can make me better, fine. If not, it's been a great ride. It's strictly a medical decision. But I'm not going to torture myself again."
The end for Barkley came with Houston ahead by seven. Barkley fouled Olajuwon hard while he was dunking, Vernon Maxwell charged in to object and Barkley shoved Maxwell, who also was ejected.
The Rockets, who blew a 20-point lead with 10 minutes to go in Game 2 and lost 124-117 in overtime, had a chance to fade again when the playoff-hardened Suns closed what had been a 16-point deficit to 77-76 late in the third quarter.
"We had control from the beginning and maintained it throughout the game," Olajuwon said. "I was concerned when they cut our lead and I stayed concerned until the last few seconds. They are an experienced team. They were in it until the last second."
Houston declined the invitation to fold, and took a 90-80 lead with 7:12 left. Phoenix kept fighting back, but the Rockets refused to be denied.
"Last year, we lost in the seventh game to Seattle," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "This year we took it a step farther, and we've also got the homecourt advantage."
The Suns pulled to 97-92 with 1:42 to go, but Olajuwon waded through heavy traffic for a dunk with 1:30 to play. Then rookie reserve Sam Cassell, who scored 22 points, added a pair of free throws with 23 seconds left, sealing the Suns' fate.
"I've got an important role on this team," Cassell said. "I've got to perfect it. I'm the leader on the court. I'm the guy who distributed the ball and makes key passes. They were giving me some shots today and I took advantage of them."
Barkley had 24 points and 15 rebounds and Kevin Johnson finished with 25 points and 11 assists for the Suns. Robert Horry scored 15 points for the Rockets, making their third trip to the conference finals after NBA Finals appearances in 1981 and 1986.
Barkley was gracious in defeat.
"I think the best team won this series," Barkley said. "I felt coming in, if they made their shots, it would be tough to beat them. I'm very proud of our team. It was a good game throughout, but we couldn't get over the hump."
It was a satisfying comeback for the Rockets, who became the second team in NBA history to lose the first two games of a best-of-7 series at home and rally to victory.
"I'm not sure we could have beaten Houston last year in the playoffs," Phoenix coach Paul Westphal said. "But I'm pleased with this team to win 56 games with what we had to deal with."
Houston also kept a playoff trend alive. Since 1982, the home team has a 16-0 record in seventh games.
After leading by 16 points in the first half and 66-54 with 7:01 to go in the third quarter, the Rockets' pace slowed, enabling the Suns to get as close as one point.
Horry's 3-point basket with 18 seconds left in the period gave the Rockets an 80-76 lead going into the final 12 minutes.
The game started as a replay of Game 5, when the Rockets scored the first nine points of the game and were never challenged in a 107-96 victory on Thursday.
The Suns missed nine of their first 10 shots, and the Game 5 scenario lasted through the first quarter as the Rockets used a 13-3 spurt to lead 33-21 at the end of the period.